Spatial, Sonic and Sublime Remains of War​

by | Apr 15, 2021

The Desertmakers: Travel, War, and the State in Latin America by Javier Uriarte (New York: Routledge, 2020, 306 pages)

I read Javier Uriarte’s book over the course of a winter long both in metaphor and reality, during a pandemic that peaked in snowy New England in the early months of 2021. One might imagine that The Desertmakers: Travel, War, and the State in Latin America, a book about 19th-century deserts and war, would be dry and death-filled, perhaps a bit too heavy for this particularly difficult 21st-century context.

Yet somehow The Desertmakers uplifted me, engrossed me, transported me across the centuries and seas. Uriarte is a master storyteller. With a cast of multiple human and non-human characters, he weaves together a tale of deserts and deserters, deviations and detours, delineations and deaths. He invests time on semantics and etymology: the word desert has origins in the notion of abandonment, to desert, so “the desert, in its very etymology, was not always there” (emphasis in original, 1). Beginning with the construction of space, one in which the Latin American “void” was in fact a byproduct of the systematic extermination of indigenous communities, he continues to provocatively toy with sequence to posit his primary thesis: “War itself is the necessary instrument of desertification” (2).

Through an analysis of travel writing, Uriarte deftly illuminates the latticework between statecraft and warcraft in four primary texts and contexts; three languages; and two distinct perspectives. If chapter one (Richard Burton’s Letters from the Battle Fields of Paraguay) and two (W.H. Hudson’s novel The Purple Land) examine English-language texts composed by narrators foreign to the settings they represent and therefore in dialogue with an imperial vantage point, then chapters three (multiple travel narratives by Argentine Francisco Moreno) and four (Brazilian Euclides da Cunha’s Os sertões) address the works of travelers who, at least upon their embarkation, assume the perspective of the modernizing Latin American state. As they move through the unknown spaces of war and come to know them, these travelers simultaneously reorient their understanding of themselves, moving into a place of self-discovery. Uriarte argues that the travelers of his study must immediately grapple with the shortcomings of the written word to speak of war: representation is inadequate. And that disjunct between what one imagines and what one sees results in a “rhetoric of confusion, an uneasiness as to how, exactly, to perform the act of looking, and they constantly reveal a need to adjust or readapt the eye” (5).

 For Uriarte, fin-de-siecle war and state violence march in lockstep with continent-wide efforts to integrate into the global order of capital. Territorialization and taxation merge in The Desertmakers as a means to assert and make visible power, as do maps and railroads. Uriarte showcases the shifts in both transportation and communication and the ways in which ideas and goods began to circulate, particularly as the subjects of his study wrote dispatches from war. But they were not simply journalists reporting facts. They were public intellectuals, even scientists, whose descriptions of supposedly backwards peoples fueled the state’s war apparatus. Uriarte delineates the modernization process as wed to the advent of a militarized state in each of the four countries that he studies, moving from Paraguay to Argentina to Uruguay and ending with Brazil. At its heart, his study proposes a geocritical analysis of nation-state consolidation that accounts for war as a “space-reconfiguring practice” (25). Looking to French philosopher Giles Deleuze and his countryman psychotherapist Félix Guattari’s spatial binary of the smooth space of the nomad versus the striated space of the state, The Desertmakers showcases how war allows states to “swallow up territories and populations” by demarcation and extermination (29).

The War of the Triple Alliance—also known as the Paraguayan War and fought from 1864-70 between Paraguay and the allied forces of Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay—informs the book’s first chapter and also each of the local wars featured thereafter, for its surviving generals and lieutenants went on to shape the contours of their respective countries’ genocidal modernization plans. No country, we learn in the first chapter, experienced the horror of the Paraguayan War as much as its namesake country, which lost some 40% of its original territory and north of 60% of its population. Uriarte details England’s role in the conflict, showing that it functioned as what Jennifer French of Williams College has elsewhere described as an “invisible empire” and that he deems “informal empire” (44).

This historical context of soft power complicates Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton’s “sui generis relationship with the empire he worked for” while also anchoring the chapter’s analysis of Letters from the Battle-Fields of Paraguay (1870), a text that, according to Uriarte, represents war not for its ravaging effect upon peoples but rather upon lands that then—and this chronology is important—become known as ruined spaces, void of sound. Perhaps one of the most striking elements of this chapter is the marriage posited between the spatial and the sonic, a state-sanctioned union in which space is nullified and humanity is muted. War, Uriarte lucidly observes, “put in place a silence, a void, a desert” that used military action to transform “Paraguay into the periphery of the periphery” (53-54). War creates geography, war creates deserts, and war creates deserters, one “emptied out” space and the other “someone who empties out his own army; someone who abandons the battlefield, who feels both the glorious narration of the victor and the silence of the new mapped desert produced by the conflict” (69). Oppression is always met with traces of resistance.

The second chapter disentangles the evolving ways W.H. Hudson’s protagonist in The Purple Land (1885), Richard Lamb, resists changes in land and state as he travels through Uruguay and experiences the violence of war. Uriarte posits that the “profound fluidity and instability in The Purple Land as forms of resistance to the violently homogenizing and centralizing discourse that would be imposed in Uruguay in the mid-1870s” (89). He reads Lamb—an Englishman raised in Argentina and an alter-ego of the author, who was born in Argentina in 1841 to American parents and ultimately settled in London—as a figure who begins to identify less with England’s civilizing efforts and more with Uruguay’s traditional nomadic gaucho, who is slowly erased by the modern capitalist dynamics that reconfigure the landscape with wire fences and property boundaries. This unique understanding of the nomad makes Uriarte’s brilliant reading universal and transferable onto texts and contexts spatially, temporally, and even generically removed, for instance Valeria Luiselli’s novel Lost Children Archive (2019) or Chloé Zhao’s film Nomadland (2020). In both of these road-trip pieces we see deviations intended less for adventure and more to defy the logic of the state, travel defined less by concrete departures and arrivals and more by a nomadic poetics. Luiselli’s characters resist GPS and even resort to hand-drawn maps to uncage babies on the border, while Zhao’s protagonist joins a modern-day maroon community of van vagabonds, folks no longer slaves to neoliberal decadence. Her abandoned home in the town of Empire is slowly consumed by the northern Nevada desert, its fence gate left open in a symbolic return of land to nature. As with Hudson’s narrator, the protagonists in these works embrace idleness (Graciela Montaldo) as a way to occupy territory and delegitimize neocolonial projects, be they in 19th-century Uruguay or the 21st-century United States.

If Hudson laments humans’ antagonism with nature, then Francisco Moreno emerges as the Englishman’s antithesis in Uriarte’s third chapter, which posits that the Argentine traveler, scientist, and neocolonial “discoverer” of Patagonia in fact “denaturalizes” the region, “reading it as a collection of resources” as he writes alongside the state’s consolidation efforts. Uriarte explores the ways in which Moreno—down to his attire, his compass, and his weapons (170)— is a functionary of the state, marking land and even his revolver in which he etches his itinerary, a material and symbolic coupling of travel and violence that socializes the appropriation of space. Uriarte lucidly traces a chronology from the “pacification” to the “settling” to the “ranchification” of Patagonia, all euphemisms that ultimately serve to buttress a hierarchy that situates the gaucho as essential to the state’s modernizing project since his labor can transform land into capital (166).

In his reading of Moreno, Uriarte creates a parallel between the silencing of the indigenous inhabitants in the Conquista del Desierto and the silencing of the war itself, suggesting a beautiful understanding of sequence: space and subject had to be suppressed, and war proved the only means to do so. For the native populations’ voices to resound less and less, then the new conquistadors simply continued in the footsteps of the Spanish conquest, performing their claims to territory in what U.S. historian Patricia Seed has deemed “ceremonies of possession” in her analysis of the colonial context. Moreno, too, seeks to leave traces of his travels—and the state’s apparatus—on the land. This intervention manifests most resoundingly with the national flag, which upon being planted onto (of all things) a rock, somehow bestows a voice upon this formerly silent object of nature: the state can even bring geological formations into the present. “Moreno,” Uriarte tells us, “usually situates ‘mute’ nature in the realm of the past, and his modifications bring new temporal dimensions to it. Now that there is a flag, the rock is no longer ‘mute’” (152).

Whether sonic or material, traces are either vanquished or indelibly etched upon the land, depending on whose subjectivity they represent. Moreno even goes so far as to write his name onto the landscape, making use of his “idle” time that is otherwise spent gathering traces of exterminated natives to revivify in the space of a museum—skulls, skeletons, fossils. In a damning sentence, Uriarte observes the spatial absurdity at play in which “survival in the capitalist nation is no longer possible [for the indigenous communities] except in the museum […], the only possible or ‘natural’ place for them at the beginning of the twentieth century” (167).

Questions of space and production lie at the heart of Uriarte’s last chapter, which is dedicated to Os sertões (1902), the magnum opus of Brazilian author, engineer and journalist Euclides da Cunha, who also authored the 1901 essay “Fazedores de desertos” that gives The Desertmakers its title and which, in a sort of ecocriticism avant la lettre, criticizes the ravaging effects of agriculture on soil fertility (3). Like its namesake essay, Uriarte’s book treads into ecocritical waters on numerous occasions by evoking Hudson’s “proto-ecological” stance (101) as well as Moreno’s push to manage natural resources without depleting them (185), not to mention Euclides’s writings at the intersection of landscape and water management (245). With these evocations, Uriarte responds to recent calls-to-arms to understand how Latin America’s second ecological revolution at the turn of the century built on the political, cultural, and economic scaffolding mounted during the colonial period.

By contextualizing the ruins of the Canudos War within the commodities boom of rubber and coffee, The Desertmakers triangulates the nexus between Brazil’s “capitalist, centralist, and militarist configuration of state power” to showcase the ways in which colonial-era Portuguese pillage and plunder simply found a new incarnation in neocolonial territorial appropriation made possible by British capital (211). The Brazilian sertão emerges as a space of nature perpetually castigated by climate—an unusual binary that, Uriarte smartly observes, assumes climate to be separate from nature—always already a ruin, a byproduct of an ancient earthquake, a landscape long at war and long accustomed to resistance. Its inhabitants then, cannot but resist, for both space and subject are external to the state. And neither adhere to the state’s positivist desire for order and progress, something Uriarte illustrates by juxtaposing Euclides the engineer’s love of straight lines with the unplanned chaos he sees in Canudos, a city without streets, aggressive and resistant like the favela plant that goes on to give Brazil’s most notorious urban slums their well-known name. Euclides can see neither himself nor the state in the midst of such an unruly environment.

Stubbornly, beautifully, enduringly, the spatial and sonic remains of war disorient Javier Uriarte’s travelers so much so that their representations ultimately dismiss (Burton), romanticize (Hudson), cloak (Moreno), or contradict (Euclides) the violence of bellicosity. A travel guide itself, The Desertmakers leads readers on a haunting journey through the aesthetic sublime, where it unearths the impact of war on memory, culture, and the construction of national imaginaries. War, we learn, bewilders all and prompts detours and erasure. Yet despite the state’s attempts to silence its reverberations and echoes across the continent, war resists and leaves its traces everywhere.

Aarti S. Madan is Associate Professor of Spanish at WPI and author of Lines of Geography in Latin American Narrative: National Territory, National Literature (2017). She is currently at work on a book that explores literary and cultural encounters between Latin America and India.

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